GW Pharmaceuticals, the company that makes Epidiolex, is conducting a trial of the drug for Rett syndrome, a neurodevelopmental condition related to autism. The Rett syndrome trial is not focused on alleviating seizures, but on improving cognitive and behavioral problems. The company is also recruiting autistic children and teenagers for a phase 2 trial of cannabidivarin, another component of cannabis. That trial will examine cannabidivarin’s effect on a range of traits in autistic children, including repetitive behaviors, and on quality of life.
Research has also demonstrated that CBD alleviates seizures in children with CDKL5 deficiency disorder, an autism-linked condition that is characterized by seizures and developmental delay. CBD also lessens seizures and improves learning and sociability in a mouse model of CDKL5 deficiency disorder.
Some research has shown that recreational marijuana use beginning in one’s teenage years can have negative long-term effects on cognition 11 . But experts note that the dosages used for medical purposes are often quite lower than those used in a recreational context.
Are there any cannabis-derived drugs approved to treat autism or related conditions?
To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved only one cannabis-derived drug: Epidiolex. It is a liquid cannabis extract containing purified CBD that can decrease seizures in people with Dravet syndrome or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome — severe forms of epilepsy that are sometimes accompanied by autism — and in those with tuberous sclerosis complex. It is available only by prescription, and only for these three conditions.
How might cannabis help autistic people?
Epidiolex’s success has spurred many parents to try marijuana and cannabis extracts for seizures, behavioral issues and other autism-related traits in their children, but experts warn that these drugs remain largely untested for such purposes. Some studies on cannabinoids have shown promising results in animal models and in early-stage clinical trials, but this research does not yet support their widespread use.
CBD oil products aren’t lab tested in every state, according to the Child Mind Institute, so they could potentially contain THC or other unknown items.
Parents across the country have hopped on these findings and starting giving CBD oil to their children. Many claim CDB oil helps regulate emotions, promote better sleep, and control autism symptoms.
Autism is a neurological disorder impacting social skills and development. It affects one in 40 American children today, according to a December 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many children with autism have difficulty interacting with others, and some display unusual patterns of behavior like ritualistic motions. Individual cases of autism fall on a spectrum ranging from mild to severe.
CBD oil may interact with other medications.
No clinical trial has analyzed the effects of treating CBD oil with autism, so doctors aren't sure about safety. It’s also unclear exactly how CBD is absorbed into the body.
CBD oil is made without large amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the chemical that’s responsible for the psychedelic effects of marijuana – so it can’t technically get you “high.” It has become widely available in health food stores and medical marijuana dispensaries across the country – usually in liquid, cream, or gel capsule form.
You can't know the exact amount of CBD in your oil. The concentration of ingredients may differ in each batch, says Silverman.
As with every new medical breakthrough, though, CBD oil isn’t without drawbacks. According to Mandi Silverman, PsyD, MBA, senior director of the Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute, there’s a lack of information about using CBD for behavioral disorders, especially in young children. That’s why Silverman and many other health professionals suggest parents learn the facts before stocking up on CBD oil.
But despite how tempting CBD oil may be as an autism treatment, Silverman says it’s “not an intervention with an evidence base.” It’s also not an FDA-approved method for treating autism.